The DTV Delay: A Bad Idea

It looks like the digital television conversion, in the works for 12 years, is going to be delayed for five months or so, from the scheduled Feb. 17 to June 12. The new Obama Administration supports the delay, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John G. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) favors the June date, and Verizon Communications, a powerful opponent of postponement, says it can live with the later date.

Still, delaying the DTV transition at this late date is a terrible idea, mainly because I don’t think it will do anyone any good. Surveys show that about 9% of the U.S. public won’t be ready on Feb. 17, and I’m willing to bet that the same folks won’t be ready in June either. If they haven;t gotten the message after the barrage of publicity that has been given to the February date—a campaign that would have to be repeated in the spring—they’re not going to be ready then either. There’s always some percentage of the population that just doesn’t get the memo, and those folks who avoided acting because they didn’t really think it was going to happen will be even less prepared to believe in June.

There are some real issues with the transition, one of which can be solved now and the rest of which can;t be solved at all. The one that requires action is the fact that the government has run out of money to subsidize the purchase of the converter boxes that will allow older analog TVs to work with digital over-the-air signals. (The vast majority of Americans who get their TV signal from cables or satellite may never realize that there was a digital transition, whenever it happens.)

I thought the idea of offering two $40 coupons to every American household, regardless of income, to subsidize the purchase of converters was extremely stupid. Most likely, its main effect was to allow the makers and sellers of the boxes to freeze the price at about $60 when it otherwise might have fallen to $20. But it is unconscionable to let the money run out now, leaving the folks who most likely need the subsidy the worst without it. But Congress can fix this problem in about five minutes.

The biggest remaining problem of the digital transition is that people who were willing to put up with marginal analog TV signals may find they have no digital service at all. That's because digital does not degrade gracefully; when the signal gets too weak, it just dies. In some cases, even people who got decent reception of analog stations with have problems with digital signals, which operate on different frequencies and sometimes from different towers. The difficulty is that this is going to be just as true in June as it is in February--folks will still have to invest in better antennas, or break down and get cable or satellite. I don't have much sympathy for broadcasters, who will have to pay to keep their analog service alive for a few extra months. It's the broadcasters who were primarily responsible for delaying the changeover from its original 2006 date. And a five-month delay, provided it doesn't stretch any longer, probably won't significantly delay the deployment of new wireless service on the former analog spectrum. But it will cause public confusion and lead to a pointless repetition of the DTV educational campaign without accomplishing anything useful.

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